“Learning and Telling Our Story: – the Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
19 April, 2020
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Human beings are creatures who love stories. Think about your conversations with other people: what do most of them consist of? We spend a lot of time telling each other stories, don’t we – about what we’ve seen, or done, where we’ve been, what we’ve observed and experienced. Stories are what help us to make sense of our world, and of our own lives. They also help us to imagine different worlds, or to imagine this world differently.
When I tried to conceive of a conscious life without stories and storytelling, I couldn’t do it. In fact, it seems to me the lives that flourish most are those that have a strong grasp of how their particular story is rooted in, or related to, a larger narrative. In order to have a sense of meaning or purpose in our life, we need to know how our personal story fits in the broader picture of reality.
Of course, that’s what faith traditions are all about—and ours in particular. It’s no surprise that, although people complain of how the language and style can sound strange to our ears, and it sometimes takes work to interpret it, the Holy Bible has long been one of the all-time bestselling books. It’s comprised of human stories about our relationship with God, each other, and the world we inhabit. It’s the accumulation of thousands of years-old records and written accounts of how individuals and communities saw God at work, or interpreted what was happening in the world as expressing the relationship between God and humankind.
As most of you know, this year at the Congregational Church of Hollis, we’ve been examining and practicing what we’re calling “Holy Habits.” In September and October, we looked at the Holy Habit of Prayer. And then in November and December, we widened the lens a bit and looked at the Holy Habit of Worship – which includes prayer, but also Fellowship and Biblical Teaching, as well as other Holy Habits. From January through Easter, we’ve been looking at the Holy Habit of Fellowship – of life in Christian Community, which strives to embody different values and commitments than other kinds of community. And today, we’re going to start focusing on the Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching.
The point of becoming students of Biblical Teaching is to understand our lives in 2020 in the much broader, more enduring context of people who – even several thousand years ago – were trying to understand their lives in relation to God and the rest of the created order: people who had dealt with natural and national disasters, oppressions and depressions of greater duration than we ourselves are grappling with, and for whom the Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer God of this universe was the only reliable, constant, faithful force for grace and goodness.
There are so many ways in which our understandings of creation, culture, economies, technology, literature, etc., have grown and changed since the most recent Biblical books were written some 2,000 years ago. But there are certain fundamental things about how human beings have related to God and each other that haven’t changed. And there are persistent things about God’s character that haven’t changed either. These are the things we seek to learn about from Biblical teaching, because they help us to be more confident in our understanding of God, and the world we inhabit, and of ourselves.
The idea to focus on Holy Habits this year came from a book and a discipleship program by the same title. Andrew Robert’s book elaborates on the story about the earliest days of the Christian Church, told in the Bible’s Book of Acts, as a way to strengthen personal faith and discipleship. He specifically builds on Acts Chapter 2, part of which we heard this morning, where the biblical author (the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke) talks about how the world was changed because the earliest disciples had changed their lives and the lives of others, as the Holy Spirit’s power worked with them and through them. The verses that immediately follow today’s lectionary passage describe how the Christian movement began to spread – and it lays out the practices of the earliest Christians. Luke wrote, “So those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Did you hear some of the Holy Habits we’ve explored being mentioned?
Luke and his original audience all understood the importance of being connected to a more enduring story than just what they themselves, or they and their parents’ generation had experienced. Luke appealed to Jewish/Hebrew Biblical teaching that the earliest Christians (who, of course, were Jews as Jesus was) would have had from their childhoods. When Jesus was a boy, the Bible he read from – our Old Testament – was at least hundreds of years old by then.
Now remember, in his speech to the curious people wanting answers about who the apostles thought they were, and where they’d come upon the amazing power they were now manifesting, Peter referenced David – whom everyone knew as the greatest king Israel had ever known, and a man of exemplary faith in God, despite his infamous flaws. Peter also mentioned the idea of a Messiah, a savior, someone who would redeem the people not only from the hardship and suffering this world inevitably serves up, but also from the miseries and relationship chasms of our own making. All of these pieces helped the people to situate themselves in the context of a bigger story – the narrative of God’s ongoing activity with humankind.
According to Luke, people were compelled by what Peter had said. His original audience had already been curious about this man, Jesus, whose power and teachings were so captivating, whose life was so extraordinary. But, after the Romans put him to death by crucifixion at the behest of his own religious authorities, everyone—disciples and non-believers alike—had become scared about being associated with him. And they weren’t sure what to think about the stories they’d heard about his resurrection.
Our gospel lesson, from John’s gospel, alluded to that fear and confusion. Remember, they were all together in a locked room because, John reported, they were afraid of the Jews – by which he was referring to the religious leaders who had pressed for Jesus’ crucifixion. And Thomas (who often gets a bad rap) was no different from most people. He said he wouldn’t believe that Jesus was risen from the dead unless he observed and verified it himself. If one of Jesus’ most avid students harbored questions and doubts about the stories he was hearing, then why shouldn’t you or I, or anyone else? According to the gospel writers, when Jesus appeared to the huddled, grieving, confused, questioning disciples, he spoke words of peace and reassurance to all of them, even the doubters. And that includes us. For many – if not most – of us, skepticism and questioning is a sign of a healthy faith. We weigh up our personal reasoning and experience against the stories others tell us, in order to discern Truth. It’s something we observe from Jesus’ own teachings. He didn’t just accept the party line regarding what he read in the Torah; he absorbed it, thought about it, and interpreted it himself. And, he often came up with a way of understanding it that was quite different from what the religious teachers held as authoritative. But Jesus’ interpretations were always consistent with the law of love and compassion for the least of God’s creatures.
Faith is not about having all the right answers; it’s about a living, active, growing (which means changing) relationship with God. As he concluded his gospel, John wrote, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” He was appealing to his audience to pay attention to his observations which had persuaded him of Jesus’ identity, but also to note their own experience as they considered the stories that were circulating against the stories of their own life.
Luke wrote his gospel and The Acts of the Apostles (Acts for short) precisely to report and persuade dubious people of what had happened both during Jesus’ life, at his crucifixion, and afterward, when his closest companions experienced their teacher and friend resurrected. Acts is the story about what happened when Jesus’ followers felt the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and allowed themselves to be guided by that power just has Jesus had been. They began doing things that surprised everyone, like speaking in foreign languages they’d never spoken in before; healing people the same way that Jesus had done; and speaking truth to power with courage and conviction. Their fear of worldly authorities was gone, and they were now living with new life—life that came from the empowerment of the same Spirit that had lived and breathed through Jesus Christ himself. The very same Spirit of power that Jesus had promised to give them both before and after his death. Resurrection power, endowed by the Holy Spirit.
And friends, the reason it’s important that we have this 2,000-year old story, the reason it’s important for us to embrace the Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching, is because it helps us to understand that the very same divine Holy Spirit has continued to be actively involved in the world and with human beings generation after generation, through crisis after crisis since that time, whether the catastrophe has been familial or global.
The same Holy Spirit that enabled the apostles to change their world is still faithfully empowering doctors, nurses, and other first responders in areas that are overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, helping them to keep providing compassionate care despite their fatigue and some of the impossible decisions they need to make.
That same Spirit is inspiring the lives of young people—some of you who are here at church with us today—who might reasonably complain about all they’ve lost and are continuing to miss, but aren’t. Instead, they’re noticing the wonderful things they do enjoy, and trying to multiply the joy by doing things to brighten someone else’s day. They’re turning their disappointment into opportunities to be more creative; reaching out and helping others by making cards to cheer them up, or finding ways to collect food for needy families.
The same Spirit of resilience and new life that greeted, bathed, and strengthened the disciples in a locked room is helping to keep young parents positive and hopeful, inspiring them to do their best as de facto untrained teacher’s assistants while also either working from home, or looking for work they’ve recently been put out of.
It’s the same Spirit that’s at work in the minds and efforts of governing leaders who are endeavoring to act in the best interests of others, particularly those being mindful of the most vulnerable just as Jesus was.
The more familiar we get with our Biblical story and stories, the more confident we become in the faithfulness and trustworthiness of a sovereign God who abides with us through every good and horrible thing. Is there anything about the Biblical story – or any of the shorter stories contained within the longer story – that you’re curious about? Tell me about it – and talk to each other about it! That’s what church fellowship is for; it’s in this community that we should be talking about the stories we live by, the stories that give us life … not just 21st-century stories, but ancient stories that tell us truths about what it means to be fully human, fully alive.
What would make it easier for you to embrace the Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching, if you’re someone who might think it’s too difficult to read and interpret the Bible on your own? We are characters and participants in a dramatic story much larger than this moment and our individual lives. But what we say and do matters in the story; our role and activities are just as important as Thomas’ and Peter’s and Luke’s and David’s were in the Biblical story and stories. As we embrace the Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching across the next several weeks, I hope you’ll find meaning and hope by digging deeper into the Book that guides our life together, and the stories that ground and give shape to our personal story. Amen.
 Acts 2:41-42